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Indian Polishers Now Play Major Role in Antwerp Diamond Industry

The city of Antwerp has been home to a prosperous diamond industry for centuries. Traditionally, the fine craft of polishing belonged to the city's Jewish community. But the success of Indian firms in Antwerp, the availability of low cost labor in Asia, and the decision by diamond-producing countries in Africa to develop their own industry are all changing the face of Antwerp's diamond trade. Nina-Maria Potts reports.

Antwerp's Diamond Bourse -- a place where your word, not a contract, clinches the deal. Founded in 1904, its members include retailers, manufacturers and brokers who must abide by a strict code of conduct.

Today, some 1,500 diamond firms are housed in three high-security, inter-connected streets. Antwerp diamond authorities say this is where 80 percent of the world's rough diamonds are bought and sold.

European Orthodox Jews once dominated the industry, but that is a thing of the past. The Antwerp World Diamond Center says Indians now make up two-thirds of Antwerp's $29 billion diamond trade and the Jewish share has dropped to about a quarter.

Philip Claes of the Antwerp World Diamond Center rejects suggestions the change is the source of community tensions. "In fact, everyone was very happy that the Indian traders were moving in, because it proved that Antwerp was important and they needed Antwerp."

As Indian traders moved in, Antwerp's polishing industry moved out -- to India and China. The Diamond Center says in the 1960s there were roughly 25,000 to 30,000, mainly Jewish polishers in Antwerp. Today, fewer than 1,000 polishers remain.

Some 30,000 Antwerp Jews died in the Holocaust during World War Two, but the trade eventually recovered. The craft was passed down from father to son, in a tradition that goes back to the 15th century.

Alain Majerczyk's company, SAFDICO, employs fewer polishers than it once did, but he says that with modern technology they are among the best in the world. "To make a study of the stone, you need really to simulate everything on computer before you touch a stone, and even then when you simulated everything on computer, you need a very skillful polisher, to make it a reality," he said.

Some diamond traders say the best skills and technology have already been outsourced.

But for Raj Mehta, of Rosy Blue, Antwerp offers something else -- a neutral environment where anybody can trade.

Mehta attributes the success of Indians in Antwerp to family tradition. "We, in the Indian culture, have the system traditionally that our children will join the father's business. I joined my father's business, and I hope that my son will also join my business. Which is not the fact in the Western or European culture at all."

In Antwerp's main diamond district, business appears to be thriving for both the Jewish and Indian communities. And traders are confident Antwerp's facilities, skills and technology can keep the world's best stones right here.

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